“Living With Our Deepest Differences: Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society”

This curriculum is designed by the Williamsburg Charter Foundation for use in junior and senior high schools. It provides essays, documents, selections from poetry, from newspapers, and from literature to facilitate the discussion of the “first liberty,” religious liberty, throughout American history. Its “Introduction” gives an overview of the purpose of the curriculum.


The Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are the boldest and most successful part of the entire American experiment. Two hundred years after their enactment they shine forth in a century made dark by state repression and sectarian conflict. Yet the ignorance and contention now surrounding the clauses are a reminder that their advocacy and defense is a task for each succeeding generation.

No group places a more central role in carrying out this task than the teachers of our nation’s schools. Education for public citizenship is one of the three great purposes of education, along with education for work and education for personal development. Teachers are therefore charged with transmitting the fundamental principles of liberty and instilling in citizens of the future a commitment to democratic values. What happens in the classroom determines in large measure the vitality and strength of American democracy.

At this crucial time in our history, educating students about the principles of religious liberty is a matter of great urgency.  Expanding pluralism in the United States has dramatically increased our religious and ethnic diversity.  The state of California, for example, is now accepting one-third of the world’s immigration. Yet with the varied cultures of Africa, Asia and Latin America blending with those of Europe, California is only the leader of many states and school districts that have a ‘minority majority’ in public school enrollment. At issue is a simple but profound question that runs through the modern experience: How do we live with our deepest differences?

The answer lies first and foremost in religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, which is a fundamental and inalienable right for citizens of all faiths or none. Religious liberty is our nation’s “first liberty.” It undergirds all other rights and freedoms secured by the Bill of Rights. The opening sixteen words of the First Amendment provide the guiding principles by which people with deep differences in faith can live together as citizens of one nation. . . .

A distinguished group of educators, scholars and educational organizations has joined to develop this curriculum in order to help teachers address the principles and problems of religious liberty in a pluralistic society. The lessons follow the broad outlines of the Williamsburg Charter, working exclusively within a framework of what is educationally sound and constitutionally permissible.

The curriculum focuses on the place of religious liberty in society. The lessons are designed to provide the teacher with maximum flexibility so that they may be used either together as a unit or infused separately into a course as needed. Everything that the teacher will need—lesson plans, source documents, extension activities, bibliographical materials and suggestions for evaluation—is included in this package.

The goals of the curriculum are these:

  • To explain the history and significance of the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses and their decisive contribution to individual and communal freedom and to American democracy.
  • To examine the advantages and responsibilities of living in a modern pluralistic society, and to demonstrate how practical dilemmas can be answered in terms of tolerance and mutual respect rather than bigotry and violence.
  • To deepen each student’s appreciation of the principles of religious liberty for peoples of all faiths or none, and to establish a strong civic commitment to the ground rules by which all citizens can contend robustly but civilly over religious differences in public life.

We wish to underscore the fact that this is a course in religious liberty. It is not a course in world religions or even religion in America. Nevertheless, teaching the story of religious liberty in America inevitably includes some discussion of religious beliefs and practices. If the approach to these discussions is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, teachers can foster among students understanding and mutual respect for differences of belief.

The curriculum is designed for use in both public and private schools. But public school teachers in particular should always keep in mind the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. The following statements, given in Religion in the Public School Curriculum, help to clarify this distinction that is so important in the public schools:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may strive for student awareness of religions, but should avoid pressing the student to accept any one religion, all religions, or no religion.
  • The school may sponsor student about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any faith.
  • The school may inform the student about various beliefs, but should not seek to conform him or her to any belief.

In short, teaching about religious issues in American history must never be taken as an opportunity to proselytize. Teachers must make every effort to respect the beliefs of the students and their families and to avoid injecting their personal beliefs concerning religion into the discussion.

Questions from students about the various religious groups mentioned in these lessons should be answered with careful attention to historical accuracy. Historical events that raise doctrinal questions should be treated with sensitivity and balance. Teachers leading these discussions need to be fully familiar with the historical background accompanying each lesson. Keep in mind that religious liberty, not theology or religious practice, is the theme of every lesson.

Students should not be asked by the teacher to explain their religious or ideological beliefs. It a student offers to do so, then he or she should be treated with courtesy and respect, but should not be allowed to dominate the discussion.

Again, this curriculum focuses on the guiding principles that enable people of all faiths or none to live together as one nation. It is vital, therefore, that the lessons be taught in a manner that fosters respect for differences and appreciation for diversity as a source of national strength.

[Excerpt from “Living With Our Deepest Differences: Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society.” The Williamsburg Charter Foundation and the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. www.freedomforum.org. 2011.]